Reading Lolita in Tehran

Pity is the password, says the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain in modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance. A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi

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A Clockwork Orange

‘Goodness comes from within… Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.’

Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962) is an enduringly fascinating novel, and not simply because of the controversy surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. From the first page I was entranced by the novel’s playful language. The Nadsat of Alex’s gang, or his ‘droogs’, is a uniquely inventive literary creation. Burgess’ neologisms seem to roll off the tongue, granting an empowering quality to Alex’s language. Nadsat lends itself especially well, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the crafting of insults:

‘How are thou, thy globby bottle of cheap, stinking chip-oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou!’

I think Alex’s language is so effective because it appears to combine two contradictory modes of speech: it’s both heavily formal and Shakespearean (‘How are thou’), yet simultaneously direct and evocative, as demonstrated by the almost-onomatopoeiac effect of ‘globby’. I can’t imagine hearing that word, even in the most innocent of contexts, and believing it to mean anything positive.

Without Nadsat, A Clockwork Orange would be a far lesser novel, as the use of this dialect assists in the characterisation of Alex. As his narration navigates the reader through Burgess’ dystopian vision of England, it’s crucial that his voice is a powerful one.

 

Happyslapped by a Jellyfish

I don’t like jellyfish, they’re not a fish, they’re just a blob.

They don’t have eyes, fins or scales like a cod.

They float about blind, stinging people in the seas,

And no one eats jellyfish with chips and mushy peas.

Jellyfish, Karl Pilkington

Happyslapped by a Jellyfish

A slightly unconventional poem, Karl Pilkington’s Jellyfish never fails to make me smile.

Dragon Ball

As I was introduced to Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball series through the televised Dragon Ball Z, I knew very little about the original manga until relatively recently. After reading the first three volumes of the manga, however, I’ve fallen in love with the Dragon Ball universe all over again. And since I’ve yet to write much about manga, I thought a post on my favourite anime series would be a terrific way to start.

Dragonball Cover 3

It’s been extremely satisfying to return to the very beginning of what subsequently blossomed into an epic, all-encompassing narrative (featuring more characters than I can count, and thirteen films, with a fourteenth to follow this year), and learn about the origins of the characters. This is particularly interesting with characters like Yamcha, who become overshadowed by more powerful characters in the later series.

There are two aspects of the Dragon Ball manga that I’d like to discuss, because I find both absolutely fascinating. The first is the strong comedic tone present in Dragon Ball. This marks a significant difference from the sequel, as Dragon Ball Z has a greater sense of threat throughout and places less emphasis on humour as a result. Dragon Ball reads more like a folktale or a work of fantasy than its sequel, which features many elements of science-fiction, e.g. space travel and cyborgs, and I think this difference enables the original to adopt a more whimsical tone. The somewhat adult nature of the humour was a surprise, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. This is best illustrated by Goku’s method of differentiating between the genders:

Goku: Wow! You can tell if it’s a man or woman just by looking?!! That’s awesome!

Kuririn: You’re kidding me! You really can’t tell?!

Goku: Sure I can tell…if I pat ’em to see what’s under their pants.

Kuirin: …Let me just tell you up front…I’m male.

Goku: Gotcha.

The humour contributes to the sense that this is a very knowing piece of writing; Toriyama seems aware that his fictional world follows a singularly odd sort of internal logic. Returning to the original series has clarified many of the stranger aspects of Dragon Ball Z, as the anime never explains the co-existence of dinosaurs and hover-cars, or the fact that several characters who walk, talk and dress like humans are, in fact, actually animals.

The second aspect of the manga that I’ve enjoyed discovering is the extent to which it draws upon the classic Chinese legend, Journey to the West. Goku is named after the Monkey King himself, and the quest for the dragonballs parallels Tripitaka’s quest for the Buddhist scriptures. Drawing on such an epic source lends a great deal of depth to the story, and perhaps goes some way towards accounting for its enduring popularity. 

Sean Schemmel, the voice actor for Goku, expressed a similar view in an interview with Red Carpet News TV (which can be viewed in full here: http://bit.ly/YvBqsF). Sean suggested that Journey to the West is tantamount to the Greek tragedies in terms of its cultural significance, and that these classic stories ‘stand the test of time because they are the stories about man’s survival…whether it’s man versus man, man versus society, or man versus the elements.’

Akira Toriyama drew upon this epic myth and adorned it with elements of fantasy, science fiction, and a dash of ribald humour, to create a truly engrossing tale.

Midnight’s Children

I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

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Midnight’s Children contains everything any reader could desire in a novel: the language is richly evocative, and the story itself is epic, straddling history and myth. The novel was my first introduction to magical realism, and I think ‘magical’ is the most fitting way to describe Rushdie’s masterpiece.

 I have yet to see the film, but it looks terrific. Since it was adapted by Rushdie himself, I’m certain I won’t be disappointed!


Living Hell

‘In that Red Terror of 1966, the most worthless thing in China was a human life.’

Recently I purchased The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature. I was intrigued by the introduction: it outlined periods and trends in Chinese Literature, which is a completely new topic to me, and one about which I would like to learn a lot more!

The anthology contains a range of texts, including poems, short stories, and essays. I began by dipping into the essays and have found myself haunted by Living Hell, an extract from Wen Jieruo’s memoirs, which details the torment suffered by her family during the Cultural Revolution.  Her essay presents a strikingly honest account of a disturbing and almost incomprehensible part of human history.

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The most terrifying aspect of her account is that much of the violence was perpetrated by youths. Young people were lured out of the classroom with the promise of revolutionary glory, and told to destroy the lives of their elders, many of whom they previously held in the highest regard. In their seemingly senseless rampages, they appear less like schoolchildren, and more like wild animals: ‘I began to wonder,’ writes Wen Jieruo, ‘if the hoodlums surrounding me were men or beasts.’

The dehumanising affect of violence, a prominent theme in Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum, is in evidence here, too. Wen’s mother, who tried to cooperate with the regime but was only met with greater punishment, committed suicide to escape persecution. Not only did the Red Guards force her family to curse her, but the youths appeared unaffected by the knowledge that their actions had driven a woman to her death. Instead of expressing remorse, they criticised Wen’s mother for ‘alienating herself from the people.’ Even after death, the victims of the violence were denied respect. Wen records trucks piled high with corpses, so that the last thread of individual dignity was destroyed. She was not allowed to collect her mother’s ashes.

Wen’s essay represents a courageous attempt to comprehend a brutal political campaign that claimed several million lives, and shattered many more.

(Incidentally, I also learned recently that Wen Jieruo helped to translate James Joyce’s Ulysses into Chinese. I can’t imagine how difficult a task that must have been! http://bit.ly/RU3XW7)

Good Omens

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.

Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

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Good Omens is co-authored by Terry Pratchett, writer of the sublime Discworld series, and Neil Gaiman, author of Neverwhere, Stardust and American Gods (all of which constitute truly stunning examples of modern imaginative fiction) and the Sandman graphic novels, which feature a mythology as dense and inventive as Tolkien’s.

With a combination like that it’s no surprise that I’ve fallen completely in love with this book, and I’m only on page 60.